19 September 2011

TESTOSTERONE & CULTURE: A Comment on Another Adaptationist Fable

The headline on September 12 read: “Fatherhood Cuts Testosterone, Study Finds, for Good of the Family.”  The article – on the front page of the NY Times – told of a recent study that found that becoming a father and engaging in childcare decreases a man’s testosterone levels.

For the scientists who produced the study, and for the newspaper’s science reporter alike, there is but a single, inevitable (and thus extra-cultural) consequence of this reported drop in testosterone levels: it makes men, on their view, less likely to seek multiple sex partners and more likely to be monogamous.  The decrease in testosterone is thus “adaptive” to parenting, by virtue of it leading a man to be more anchored to a child’s mother—with the presumption (in the study and news report alike) being that the child in question is indeed the father’s genetic child (as well as the mother’s).

What these scientists and the NY Times's science journalist are entirely blind to is the possibility that there is no singular or automatic behavioral consequence of a drop in a man's testosterone level and, indeed, that a man’s response may depend a great deal on socialization and cultural values.  Consider the possibility that some men in some contexts, if they experience a drop in “libido” (which is the presumed result of a drop in “testosterone,” in the study and NY Times alike), might seek to recapture or rekindle their “libido” by seeking out a new partner.  In that case, if fatherhood indeed produces a drop in testosterone, the drop might lead to more sexual “infidelity,” rather than more “faithfulness”!

And what about the possibility that higher levels of testosterone are what make some men, at least in some social contexts, more monogamous—if sticking with an established partner provides a more reliable sex life than seeking out a new partner?  Surely, it cannot be the universal experience, or essential character, of all men to be able to find a new sex partner, whenever they so desire--"at will," as it were.  This is, though, precisely the presumption (the male fantasty, one might say) in a great many of the adaptationist fables told by evolutionary psychologists.

The larger question is this: how, given the range of human variability across time and space, can a group of scientists and science journalists be so stubbornly simple-minded (and so simple-mindedly stubborn) as to believe in a singular, determined, and universal behavioral outcome as a result of a drop in the level of a given hormone?  And when will these scientists, and science journalists, finally get the more complex truth that there is always a complex interaction between human biology and culture?


Back on May 7th, the headline in the NY Times read: "Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism." The problem is that this headline was simply false.  No major was proposed; and none was approved.

The NY Times article also reported the founding of a "department of secular studies" at Pitzer College (along with the major).  The truth or falsity of this second claim is more complex than the claim about the major--but this claim too is largely misleading.  

To start, Pitzer prides itself on not having any "departments."  The closest analog to "departments" at Pitzer are odd beasts known as "Field Groups," and these "Field Groups" come in two kinds at the College.  The kind that is most like a department at other colleges are known as "Type A" field groups; there are also "Type B" field groups (which I will explain in a moment).  And the grain of truth in the NY Times story was that Pitzer College established a Type B field group in "secular studies" last spring.  

So just what is a Type B field Group?  Here is what Pitzer's Faculty Handbook says: Type B field groups are "Field Groups in which there are no primary appointments. . .  Such Field Groups may come into being whenever four or more members of the Pitzer faculty feel that such a Field Group will serve their interests."  

Put simply, then, to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "major" in secular studies is false; and to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "Department" of secular studies is stretching the truth—quite a bit, in my view.  

In this matter, then, the NY Times did not so much report the news as become, in effect, a PR organ of a nascent movement to establish secular studies (both here at Pitzer and nationally).   I'll come back to the question of the Times’s responsibility (or irresponsibility) in this matter below, but first I want to take up a different issue: the role that I myself played in voting to establish "secular studies" as a Type B Field Group at Pitzer College.

The vote that established a "Type B" Field Group in secular studies was taken by Pitzer's faculty executive committee (and not by the faculty as a whole, contrary to what the Times’s article suggests).  As it happens, I was serving on the faculty executive committee when the vote was taken, and I myself voted in favor of the motion, even though I was skeptical about “secular studies” (for reasons I will discuss in a moment).  The argument that swayed me was, 'live and let live; if a handful of colleagues want to have a type B field group in secular studies, it involves no resources, and it is illegitimate to block such a pursuit, even if one is critical of it, on the principle of respecting intellectual diversity and academic freedom.'

That was and remains a very good argument.  But had I known last spring that the vote of the faculty executive committee would repeatedly be represented, in the larger public sphere, not as a vote to respect academic freedom and intellectual diversity, but as an endorsement of "secular studies," I would have voted "no."  

Indeed, the longer I have thought about this matter, and the more I have discussed it with my colleagues who support secular studies at Pitzer, the more I have become skeptical that "secular studies" should in fact exist as an undergraduate, liberal arts major, at least at this historical moment.  Here's why.

An undergraduate major establishes a space within which that major's students do a disproportionate amount of their coursework.  An important concern when we set up majors should thus be whether, and in what ways, they may create--in the manner of cable news channels--echo chambers.  In other words, we should be wary of setting up an undergraduate major that cordons off as a “major” what is a fundamentally a position, or side, within a legitimate academic debate.  This is not always an easy principle to apply.  But my concern is that establishing a separate major in secular studies would expose students to too constrained (or circumscribed) a range of views on religion and secularism.   Note, very importantly, that this is in no way an argument against the teaching of any such courses in secular studies; it is, rather, an argument against having the set of those courses established as a major.    

The reason I think this principle applies in the case of secular studies is that, as best I can tell, the version of secular studies that is being championed at Pitzer (and which has outposts nationally and internationally) is in fact something like a re-inscription of modernization theory--since it always turns out (in this secular studies) that religion is 'behind' (or 'backward') and secularism is 'ahead' (or distinctly 'modern').  And it almost never turns out the other way. 

What makes it particularly important that this social evolutionary (or developmental) view of religion and secularism not be given a 'safe house' in its own academic major is precisely that this view already has significant ascendency within the secular academy.  It is, of course a view that is contested outside the academy, specifically in religious contexts.  But this view is very rarely contested beyond the academy from a secular perspective that doubts the absoluteness of secularism itself.  We owe it to our students that study secularism to insure that within the academy, they get this rarely heard, nuanced, and troubling critique of secularist triumphalism.

So here's my point: even though I think this re-inscribed modernization theory is as mistaken as the Cold War era version of modernization theory (as exemplified by Walt Whitman Rostow's The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto), I steadfastly support the academic freedom of my valued colleagues who believe passionately in their "secular studies" to offer their "secular studies" courses.  Their academic positions are legitimate components of a larger debate about secularism and religiosity; and their courses thus have a legitimate place in the curriculum.  But I do not similarly support bundling these courses together and making them a major unto themselves.  To do so would too much diminish the extent to which students in this major (were it to be established) would hear critiques of this social evolutionary, or developmental, view of religion and secularism.

An aside: I just spoke of modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s as bearing the stamp of the Cold War; contemporary "secular studies," I am suggesting, is a re-inscription of this older modernization theory, a re-inscription that bears the stamp of our time as an era that is marked, for many secular persons, by concerns about both Christian and Islamic religiosity (that is, about both Christian and Islamic "fundamentalisms," so-called).  It is this fear of religious "fundamentalisms" that is catalyzing this new secular studies I am suggesting, just as the fear of communism catalzyed Rostow's modernization theory.  End aside.

So I am now on record.  As of this moment at least, I am disinclined to support in the future what the NY Times has falsely reported already happened at Pitzer College: i.e., the founding of a major in secular studies.

Which gets me back to the awful job the Times did in this instance.  It's not so much the initial error that I find unconscionable; it turns out, the Times trusted a mistaken press release and failed to check its sources.  But we’re all fallible.  What's unconscionable is that the Times has steadfastly refused to print either a correction or even a letter criticizing its shoddy reporting.   

The so-called "newspaper of record" should wear a paper bag over its mast-head for a year, as penance.